Interview with Bill Smith
Interview by Megan Krigbaum
What was your culinary education?
There was no formal education. I was a '60s person, right? So after school, I did this and that. At one time, I was going to Europe to visit friends and one of my roommates was the head waitress at a French restaurant here in town and I needed some cash for the trip. And she said, "Well, I think they need somebody to peel potatoes and stuff in the kitchen. Why don't you apply for that job?" So I did. And I worked there for a couple months, and I went off to Europe; when I came back, there was a job available doing the same thing, pretty much. And the next thing I knew—well, that was that. I learned on the job. It suited me. I wouldn't have known that without being in that situation. It never occurred to me to be a chef. It just turned out that it was a good match once I discovered it.
Why do you think French food was such a good match?
Well, I always liked France. I think maybe just the aesthetic of cooking was the good match—I just happened to find it in a French restaurant. It might have happened somewhere else. This is a little, tiny French restaurant. It was in the early '70s. It was at a time when people were just starting to be interested in food again in this country. All of a sudden, people became interested in ingredients and techniques—that was just starting to happen here—so you felt like you were on the cutting edge of something. That kept it interesting. It was just good luck. It was the right place, right time sort of thing. So I learned pretty much on the job—I learned French first, French technique and all that, which is a good foundation for anyone—any kind of cooking, really. And I had grown up in a family that had good cooks, so I was used to good food. I think that helped me as well. There was never any formal training.
Actually, these people who I worked for, they didn't have any training either. We just got out Julia Child and started from page one. That's what they did, and we just followed along with them.
And whose cookbooks do you read right now? Who's on your nightstand?
Right this minute? Well, I was on a book tour and I was sort of looking for stuff—I went to a lot of itty-bitty bookstores. At one of the places, I got that wonderful book Bones by Jennifer McLagan. It's about meat, basically—it's a meat cookbook. I also read through the Kitchen Sisters books, and I've got their Hidden Kitchens book. But it isn't really a cookbook—it sort of is, but it sort of isn't. I'm a big fan of radio journalists and so I have that right here.
What's your current ingredient obsession?
The pork people around here have started making osso buco out of pork shanks. We just go through tons of those. Tons. They're good. They're as good as regular osso buco, which is my favorite kind, but they're good because they're kind of Southern. Pork is the queen bee down here.
One thing lately I've had that I've never had before—and I'm rather enjoying it, although it's unusual here—is chestnuts. People have brought me a lot of chestnuts this year. So I've been using chestnuts to make soup. There's been a chestnut blight in northern America, but apparently the Chinese variety doesn't catch that disease.
People show up with things all the time. There's a woman in town, Blanche Norwood, who cracks pecans for me all winter as she watches television. She picks them up in her yard and she's brought me, well, there's got to be 60 pounds. I use them in everything right now. I've got them in pasta, I've got them in a wilted salad, I've got them in a pie.
What's your biggest food pet peeve?
Well, I try to be real tolerant. I want people who come to the restaurant to enjoy themselves. I'm not trying to teach them anything. I'm not trying to, you know, belittle them. I don't want to try to show them up. I just want everyone to come in, and I want them to have a nice time and say, "Oh, this is real good," you know: "Thanks, what a nice night." That's all I'm looking for. I'm pretty indulgent of people. When people are rude to my staff, I don't like that.
Do you travel a lot?
I love to travel. I don't get to very much, but I go to Mexico because most of my staff is from there and I go to see them when they go back home. And I have a great time, I want you to know. I have just the time of my life every time I go down there. The last time I went, one of the guys who works for me—this is hilarious—he had bought a new pickup truck and he wanted to take it home. He was so scared to drive by himself, so I said, okay, I'll go with you. It took us five or six days to drive from here to the middle of Mexico, and we had the best time. And I really just shotgunned in a pickup truck all the way. We had a great time and I stayed with his family for a few days and then I flew back. It happened to be in a town where I had lots of other friends who had worked for me, so I just had a big ol' time.
How long did it take you to write this book?
Forever. I really thought I was going to knock it out in no time. And, in fact, I did write the first rough draft quickly. But I had never written a cookbook before, and I wrote it the way I cook, which is, I sort of explain it to myself as I go. So I didn't have a list of ingredients, I didn't have temperatures, I didn't have amounts. I gave it to an editor friend of mine, and he said, "You've written really well, but nobody's going to know what to do." So I said, "All right, okay," and then I got an agent. And she sort of nudged me through the procedure. It took me about three years, really, or a little longer—much longer than I thought. I really thought I was going to sit down and be done with it in six months or so. But, boy, was I mistaken.
I found this woman who tests the recipes for me, and I don't know what I would have done without her. And she told me, "You chefs don't know anything. I do this all the time and you think you know how much you use, you never pay attention," and all this other stuff. I'd get these hilarious e-mails and phone calls from her saying, "This [recipe] you said made six, made 60. Do you want me to fix this?" Or she'd say, "Did you want this to be really runny?" And I'd say, "No, I didn't want it to be runny." And she'd say, "Well, it is. I think I know why. Do you want me to fix it?" "Yes, thank you."
In your recipe for Green Peach Salad featured in Best of the Best, you use unripe peaches. How did you discover there was a use for these?
I was looking for a use. You know, you get peaches in a bushel, and there are invariably some that aren't ready to go. I suspect I sprinkled them with sugar and salt to make them like ripe peaches and it didn't work. I was just looking for ways to use them. I must have gotten a lot at one time or something. You see things like that in places like Italy. You see things put to strange use like that. That may have been an inspiration.
What was the genesis of your recipe for Green Tabasco Chicken?
Green Tabasco was quite a revelation to me. I think it's delicious! Everybody likes it. My mother makes this all the time, my sisters make it all the time, I've had people come up to me constantly and say, "I love that!" See, it's really easy to make that thing. That chicken is the easiest thing it could possibly be, which is the whole point of this cookbook, as far as I'm concerned. That company, Tabasco, they hit a home run with that.